2007 Italy, France, Monaco, Belgium

2007 Italy, France, Monaco, Belgium

Christine has always had a travel itch for Paris, and thought it would be a wonderful idea to run the Paris Marathon in the year of her 50th birthday. With eager amenability, my first response is ‘well, we will need to do some carbo loading, so let’s start in Italy’. And so, as winter regurgitates the spring, our trip is set!

Our first stop is in Europe’s kinky over-the-knee boot of Italy and the hydrated city of Venice, whose streets are made of water. We board a water-bus called a ‘vaporetto’ and join a flotilla of gondolas and other watercraft traveling along the commercial spinal cord of Venice; the Grand Canal. The buildings along the old canals have their foundations cloaked below water, creating the magical impression the historical city is actually floating. It is with good reason it has been baptized as the most beautiful ‘street’ in the world.

Slowly cruising under the Rialto Bridge, I lean over and give Christine a kiss on the cheek, marveling that we are actually here. Docking near the famous San Marco Square, we disembark and begin burrowing through the confusion of narrow alleyways in an attempt to find the small hotel we have booked.

After getting settled, it’s time to rescue some wine trapped inside a bottle. Relaxing on our flowered balcony overlooking a canal, we’re in the midst of proposing a toast when a serendipitous moment unfolds. Dressed in the traditional stripped shirt and hat, a gondolier gracefully dips the oars while belting out a song as his sleek and shiny black gondola glides past below. We share a giggle, enjoying our own little episode of Italian Idol before both gondola and gondolier slowly disappear down the winding canal; leaving us with only the ripples lapping against the foundations of the medieval buildings.  Aaah … quintessential Venezia!

San Marco Square is inundated with squads of pigeons known as ‘the flying rats of Venice’, and our walk yields what seems to be a paranormal event. The sky suddenly starts raining feathers that flutter to ground all around us, as one luckless member of the ‘plethora of pigeons’ has obviously just met a violent demise.

At night the streets come alive with a glut of buskers; with clever puppeteers, costumed mimes, mask sellers, and musicians all competing for tourist dollars. Sadly, in tourist-riddled areas the overwhelmed Italians are hardly a threat to win any congeniality contests, as their snobbery reigns supreme. In fact, with their Venetian noses stuck up so far in the air, it’s a wonder they don’t drown when it rains!

Here in Venice one almost needs an inheritance to buy a meal, and we learn the hard way that sitting down in a restaurant or trattoria also invokes a healthy 12% service fee. Cha-CHING! Compounding matters, a glass of water costs several Euros. Cha-CHING! Plus, you pay for the bread they automatically bring. Cha-CHING! It is little wonder so many Italians eat standing up; and for next time, we solemnly vow to do take-away, as the already outrageously steep prices increase dramatically the moment the buttocks get involved!

While on the subject of buttocks gentlemen, let the record show there is no shortage of Italian belles who adore accentuating the jiggle of a superior posterior, encased in designer jeans so tight they appear sprayed on! Flaunting their fine fannies while strutting about on wickedly too-high heels, these she-creatures are a serious flirtation in denim.

Not wanting to follow all the other tourist lemmings we look for alternative spaces, but soon find that Venice is not an easy place to get to know. Down an obscure alley we stumble across a tavern with a gaggle of gruff grandfathers chitchatting over a glass of their beloved vino. We’re greeted by their quizzical looks when we sit and order a glass, but they soon forget about us and resume their conversations in their sing-songy, limb-aided lingo, with all words seemingly ending in some kind of a vowel.

On the ‘glass island’ of Murano we quickly go from being dazzled by gazillions of glass goodies, to becoming restless with the sameness. Three trains later, we arrive on the opposite side of Italy in the acclaimed ‘Cinque Terre’. This World Heritage Site consists of five charming old fishing villages that defy gravity by clinging to sheer rock cliffs; with an extra bonus of no cars being permitted in any of the villages.

Years ago the towns could be reached only by donkey or boat, but now with a commuter train serving the villages, the old donkey paths have become a hiker’s paradise. Once home to fleets of fishing boats, Cinque Terre has morphed into a tourist haven, where nowadays the ‘fish’ walk the streets, buying jars of pesto!

The picturesque, postcard-perfect, and precariously perched pastel village of Vernazza is sublime. Colorful fishing boats buoyantly bob in the harbor, and cobbled alleyways host rich terracotta buildings displaying their occupant’s laundry fluttering like flags on lines strung from the upper story windows.

At the crack of dawn we begin our hike along the Via DellAmore Trail (Path of Love) which connects all five villages. Narrow paths and centuries-old steps sneak through groves of olive trees and gnarled grapevines clinging for dear life to an almost vertical hillside, and the lofty hike treats us to vistas a seagull would envy, with the Mediterranean Sea far below a sheet of wrinkled turquoise.

We follow the trail to the village of Corniglia and then on to Manarola, where we stop for a pastry and cup of high-octane hot chocolate so thick it actually has to be spooned out! Manarola’s main street, rising up from the water is unique in that instead of cars, it is boats profusely parked on the street in front of the shops. This hip hood is a perfecto place to pause and enjoy a ‘breakfast with the boats’!

With our hunger appeased we continue on to Riomaggiore, before boating back to the other end of C5 at Monterosso, for the final steep trek back to Vernazza. Hiking all five hamlets in less than three hours has our joints jostled into submission so we purchase a bottle of Limoncello liqueur to celebrate. Back in our room, the thoughtful owner has placed a Calla Lily and Easter eggs on our bed; today is Easter.

We train out to the town of Pisa to see the tower that truly is tilting drunkenly; but quickly overwhelmed by a crush of pasty, fanny packed tourists mugging for their cameras taking stupid selfies, we stop just long enough the proverbial piece of pizza in Pisa before clacking back down the tracks to our base in Vernazza.

From Cinque Terre we train to Milan, a routing that Christine had no idea about. Aware that this is home to all the famed designer brands, I somehow forgot (nudge nudge, wink wink) to divulge this part of the itinerary. Truth be told, I am simply focused on the greater good; knowing only too well that when it comes to shopping, she buzzes about the stores like ravenous locust devouring everything in sight!

Fearful of losing the house and both kidneys to cover the debt if she escapes even briefly to cruise for shoes, our elbows remain tightly locked as I take her under duress towards the train to the village of Casorate Sempione. I am in the midst of a clamorous mutiny, as no doubt about it, the Queen of Shop is much more than moderately miffed at missing out on moseying about Milan.

Reaching the tiny village and checking in to a lovely old mansion called Castagni B & B, we dawdle about buying food rather than fashion; which will be significantly more useful for a picnic. Taking a train to Arona, we begin our hike at Lake Maggiore, and seeking directions to the next town, ask an older Italian mama who gestures with her arm and says; ‘you no walka dis way; only howses and moomoo’. Her lovable lingo puts our grin muscles into action, as we thank her and choose the other fork in the road.

After walking for miles along the lake we plonk ourselves down just outside of Stresa for our picnic. Swans elegantly glide by to say hello as we kick off our shoes and settle in the sun. Our pack births a bottle of wine, tasty cheeses, aromatic salami, juicy fresh strawberries, and bread so fresh we almost have to slap it. Under a powder blue sky we savor the colorful collage of calories while enjoying calming vistas across the lake.

Returning to our B & B, owners Anna & Carlos kindly invite us to join their family for a ‘simple’ dinner. Our embarrassingly hospitable host’s meal is a fabulous eight course spread, during which we enjoy a tablespoon of giggles teaching their kids some new English words during the course of gaining a belt size!

Our alarm ruptures the silence, slapping us awake at 3:45 a.m. in order to get to the airport by 4:40 a.m.! After rushing to the airport we are dejected to learn our flight to Paris is cancelled due to a strike by air traffic controllers in France. Thirteen hours of terminal tedium surely takes the pep out of our step, with the dreary delay made even more frustrating by apathetic airport staff who probably ‘work’ as many as three hours a week, and appear to all have graduated with honors from the college of ‘Eye-Don’t-Geef-A-Sheet’!

During the arduous ordeal we strike up a friendship while joking about with a French character also named Marc. He is a well-known artist who happens to be friends with Fidel Castro and the Prince of Monaco, just to drop a couple of names! After what seems an eternity we arrive in Paris, and owe a big tip of the chapeau to Marc, who insists on having his driver deliver us directly to the Saint Pierre Hotel. What, for the most part was a horrendous day, ends with a pleasant introduction to the stylish city.

After our first night we ask the hotel manager Mohammed, if we can switch rooms. He has a good sense of humour, and we’ve been playfully trading barbs since we arrived. Regarding our request, my rival wiseass says ‘why yes, for the Madame a key to a room on the 4th floor; and for you dear sir, a pillow on the street!’

‘Bonjouring’ our way about old Paree while buying edibles for a picnic in the park, we find the Parisians much friendlier than their reputation for aloofness would suggest. As the day reduces itself to dusk, we watch Parisian life unfold while munching tasty crepes under the city’s most beloved and conspicuous landmark the Eiffel Tower; the magnificently illuminated structure looming over the city providing the ultimate romantic dinner setting!

Part of our Paris experience is partaking in a night cruise along the charming Seine River which helps us realize why Paris is known as the city of lights. Awed by the sprawling beauty, we can’t help but snuggle and share a lip-lock as the river boat passes beneath the stunningly illuminated bridges.  Ooooo–la-la, Paris is certainly a great antidote for insomnia!

After numerous metro trips and wanderings through the different arrondissements, we’re ready for another picnic. We decide to lower our ass to the grass in a park near Notre Dame Cathedral, and looking skyward at the amazing architecture, notice we’re being chaperoned by several gothic gargoyles whose ugliness cannot be over exaggerated. Early to bed tonight, with the marathon looming tomorrow!

The Paris Marathon          

Today is D-Day; ungently commencing with annoying beeps from my watch alarm dragging us awake. With eyes full of sleep, we peer out the window into the still black morning and then begin our race preparation.

Donning our running gear, we pin on race number bibs; hydrate; eat a banana; tape nipples; hydrate again; and apply Vaseline to feet, underarms, and other strategic areas. Finally, the two Victoria foot soldiers are combat-ready, and leave the womb of our room to hop on the metro and get to the start of the race.

Of 35,000 entrants registered from 87 countries only 28,261 are actually starting. A much lesser number than when I ran the 100th Boston Marathon with over 43,000, but still, with a sea of 56,522 legs, Christine and I know we’re going to lose each other once the race begins. Sharing a big hug we wish each other well, vowing to complete the run no matter what, and agreeing to reconnect back at our hotel when it’s over.

Expecting cool weather and taking no chances, I’m wearing black tights and a long sleeve merino wool shirt. However, as the day now begins to lighten it reveals completely empty blue skies and uncommonly hot temperatures. My guess is the forecast today calls for pain!

We wait with nervous energy and a head full of anticipation as the final seconds are counted down. BANG! The gun sounds, and we’re propelled forward. It’s quite a sight as the sea of runners ooze out ‘en masse’ (like my French?) from the corrals onto the spectator-lined Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triumph in the background. The main trick now is avoiding the slippery plastic from runner’s discarded water bottles.

This race is dubbed the ‘Monumental Marathon’ due to the iconic structures residing along the course, including the Louvre, Bastille, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, and the Eiffel Tower. Running a comfortable tempo with knees pistoning up and down, the first 10 km goes well despite rising temperatures. Along the route runner motivation is provided by brass bands, dancing girls, and crowds screaming ‘Allez, Allez’!

Some degree of masochism is a prerequisite when trying to run a marathon, but a nagging hip injury and today’s brutally hot weather start confiscating my confidence. Around the 25 K mark the smile miles have evaporated. My legs are now talking to me and I don’t much like what they have to say! I urge them on; ‘Come on legs, you got this’!  Continuing in a sluggish fatigue, it’s just ‘Left foot; Right foot; Repeat’!

Back in town the race course continues alongside the River Seine with crowds gathered on the bridges eagerly cheering runners on. The Parisian sights are spectacular, but around 30 K I meet up with that bastion of brutality known as the ‘Wall’.  Nope, not the Pink Floyd record album, but rather, a point when body muscles run out of glycogen and it feels as if a hippopotamus has chained itself to my ankles!

The day is now hotter than a hillbilly finds his sister and I pour water over my head at a rare aid station; gasping aloud as it cascades down my overheated body. During this break I grab some dried fruit, and in my fatigued state think I must be hallucinating, as I glance over and see a 12’ apparition passing me. Yes, I’ve just been passed by a guy on stilts! With three quarters of the race done, I try to make friends with my pain and struggle onwards, hoping not to soon find myself on a gurney on the way to an emergency room.

Alone with my thoughts, I plod on with every sinew straining, doggedly determined to fulfill our promise to each other of reaching the finish line. The kilometers slooooowly tick by, and approaching 35 K, I realize the finishing time no longer matters; at age 58, my 2:50 marathons are now just lasting memories from a time when I wore a younger man’s sneakers. This marathon is not about the clock, it’s simply about finishing! The wailing of ambulances tending to runners done in by the heat wave is a sound heard far too often today, and I pass by three runners being stretchered off the course.

During the last kilometers that the thighs despise, we enter the seemingly unending park of Bois de Boulogne. Each slap on the asphalt is causing a carnival of pain in my now jello-ed legs, and my lungs also begin to boycott the run. But wait, what do I see ahead? A wine stop! Where else but Paris, would a Medoc group be doling out red wine to struggling runners around the 39 K point in a marathon?

Hobbled by lameness of limbs, and a podium finish unlikely, I no longer give a frog’s fart about my time and stop for a glug of the grape! A German runner next to me has the same idea, and we raise our glasses in a toast to making it to the finish!  As depleted as I feel, I can’t help but chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation, and slosh off towards the finish hoping not to end up like Phidippidès!

The harsh 30 degree heat continues its toll on the runners. Over 6,700 registered runners chose not to start the marathon, and of those of us who did, another 1,322 are unable to finish. Inept race organizers were not prepared for the heat, and put all the runners at serious risk by running out of water at the aid stations along the course. I plod on, fixated on the tortoise’s mantra of slow and steady, slow and steady.

Emerging from the park and buoyed by crowds enthusiastically chanting ‘Allez Allez’ and ‘Courage’, I push my salty, sweaty body the final 200 meters to the Arc de Triumph, and cross the finish line on Avenue Foch to complete the 42.195 kilometer run. All I can say is; thank Foch it’s over!

Everything aches, take your anatomical pick. Like so many mega runs before, I’m moving about like a brontosaurus with chaffing issues; vowing never to run another damn marathon. The next wall I want to hit is when I accidentally stumble out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning!  I make my way down the steps of the Metro gingerly like a penguin on stilts, with my legs twitching like a laboratory frog. I’m very worried about Christine surviving in this heat as I know how desperately she wants to finish this marathon.

Back at the hotel, I’m soaking my weary bones in the tub when Christine shuffles in wearing a beautiful big grin. She too has completed the run, and is ready to celebrate an accomplishment worthy of her new age bracket. We have a shared euphoria from finishing this marathon under such difficult circumstances, and after giving our limbs a deserved day off tomorrow, we’ll be able to relax and enjoy the rest of our holidays.

On our final day in Paris, Christine and I pack our marathon medals to the Luxembourg Gardens for a few pictures. Then, to nobody’s surprise, Christine is off on a last minute shopping mission, so yours truly traipses off to the local market, where among other things, they are selling beautiful flowers, lush fruits, ugly fish, and naked rabbits. The market also hosts the robust odors of a fromagerie, which to me, just looks like one big nasty smorgasbord of mold.

Finally, I stop at a Brasserie; not an under garment, but a type of restaurant/brewery, where I order a pleasant pint and watch la vie Paris pass by. I grab a newspaper but nothing looks familiar. What kind of uncivilized country has 246 different kinds of smelly cheese but not a damn hockey score! Later, after packing our bags we choose a delightful French bistro for dinner, and sit outside on the sidewalk enjoying our meal in a quintessentially Parisian manner in one of the most enchanting cities on earth.

Travelling to Bruges in Belgium, we’re thrilled with our 1745 built Setola B & B and its ten foot high doors! Considered Europe’s best preserved medieval city, Bruges is bewitching, with its picturesque crisscrossing canals, historic church and bell tower, and horse-pulled carriages clip-clopping over the cobbled streets.

We cycle to the Flemish town of Damme along a tree lined canal shared by a feathered flotilla of ducks and perfectly preposterous looking great-crested grebes with ornate topnotches. Passing by old windmills, we cross the border into Holland and the little town of Sluis with fountains spewing water skywards. At a café we stop for an order of frites and a glass of Kriek ; entertained by a pair of brazen ducks underneath our table that actually have the audacity to waddle their webbed toes over the top of our shoes!

From Bruges we travel to the French Riviera’s charming city of Nice, separated from the Windex blue Mediterranean Sea by the pedestrian and bike friendly Promenade des Anglais. After a few relaxing days, curiosity takes us to the confetti sized Principality of Monaco; the world’s second-smallest country.

Home to Mazeratis, martinis, millionaires, and Mega yachts, Monaco is definitely all about money; both spending it and flaunting it. In the space of 15 minutes while waiting for a bus, four fiercely exotic Ferraris slink by, accelerating up a hill with the throaty snarl of a leopard on super-steroids, and we’re wondering what we’re doing here when everything is so far above our pay grade!

Our last five days are passes cavorting about the sun-drenched Cote d’Azur, with daytrips to the glitzy little towns of Villefranche, Antibes, Menton, Saint Paul de Vence, and Cannes. The teeny towns may be glamorous hangouts for the rich and famous, but to us, seem about as lively as the Egyptian Sphinx. And so, with our travel now gone stale, it’s time bring this hectic holiday to an end.

While agreeing an encore European trip is likely in the future, for now it’s time for us to head back to Canada for a well-earned rest, before once again drinking from the travel trough.

Mark Colegrave       April 2007